If Republican scientists, deep in the bowels of a lab somewhere in a nondescript office park in northern Virginia, were going to design the perfect politician, he would probably look something like Brian Sandoval.
Sandoval is a governor at a time when the party values executive experience over time spent in the windbag corridors of Washington. He is a young 51, “Hollywood handsome” in the words of the Los Angeles Times, but experienced, having served as an assemblyman, chairman of the Nevada gaming commission, state attorney general, and federal judge. He hails from one of the swingiest states in the nation, one that votes Republican and Democratic in equal measure. Yet he is wildly popular, winning his second term in the Silver State this month with 70 (!) percent of the vote. And if that weren’t enough, Sandoval is Hispanic at a time when the party is desperate to prove that it is not the clubhouse of old white men.
Under most circumstances, Sandoval would be an all but certain presidential hopeful, the kind for whom every trip east of Ely would be parsed for possible political implications. Instead, however, Sandoval seems to have delighted in kicking his party’s activist base in the shins. He has always been pro-choice—which already disqualifies him in the minds of many social-conservative activists—but then compounded this apostasy by refusing to reject Obamacare and by declining to continue the state’s legal fight against same-sex marriage.
Sandoval, indeed, was so comfortable with Democrats in his legislature that, according to statehouse sources in Nevada, he had already been plotting with the opposite party’s leaders before the election about how to advance his agenda, one that included increasing education funding and “tax reform”—a euphemism for raising revenue.
But then Sandoval’s popularity got the best of him. Riding on the coattails of his commanding win, control of both houses of the state legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican hands. Republicans now control all three branches of government for the first time in 100 years, and every constitutional office for the first time in state history.
And conservatives in Nevada are looking for the kind of snarl that the smiling Sandoval may not be able to deliver. Soon after the last votes were counted, Republicans in the state assembly pushed out as their leader a moderate member of the establishment, Pat Hickey, in favor of Ira Hansen, a plumber and part-time right-wing radio host who was first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010.
Sandoval once told a group of local Republicans that he would have pushed for Scott Walker-like reforms on budgets and unions if only he had the Republican-controlled legislature that Walker had in Wisconsin.
Now conservatives in Nevada plan to hold him to that. They are pushing a robust right-wing agenda that includes voter-identification laws and a hard look at collective bargaining, pensions, school vouchers, and prevailing-wage laws.
“It’s easy to be popular when you don’t take a position on any tough issues and don’t rile up one side or the other,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative blogger and political consultant in Nevada. “[Sandoval] is certainly no Scott Walker. I think he would have been happy with a Democratic legislature. His whole idea of government is about keeping the trains running on time. That’s why he is so popular. For most people, as long as your train shows up on time, you are satisfied.”
And so now Sandoval, who is still thought to be on any Republican presidential nominee’s short list for vice president, is facing perhaps one of the most interesting crossroads of any political figure in the nation—either acquiesce to his restless right flank, which could boost any national ambitions he may have, or defy it in order to keep his popularity at home.
“He has good political skills. He is a very likable. He just exudes a boyish enthusiasm about doing his job,” said Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political analyst and journalist. “The question is, can a guy who could potentially change the dynamic of the Republican Party in terms of the growing Hispanic vote—could he be the first pro-choice Republican on a national ticket?”
Nevada politicos say they are not convinced Sandoval wants to take his act national and note that he has done nothing to raise his profile outside the state. He is certain to face pressure to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, if he decides to seek another term, would be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the country. But the two lawmakers have many of the same backers among Nevada’s gaming and mining interests, and so Sandoval is thought unlikely to jump into the race.
A Reid retirement would create an easier path for Sandoval, but Ralston says he doubts that even then the governor would decide to run.
“He doesn’t want to be a U.S. senator,” Ralston said. “He is much more of an executive type. I think he sees being governor as the best job you can have.”
Ralston predicted instead a Cabinet post in a Republican administration or a federal judgeship for Sandoval.
The governor may end up having an outsize role in the GOP nominating process in 2016 even if he is not a candidate. Earlier this year, the Nevada Republican Party, following Sandoval’s lead, dropped its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. The party backed a transgender candidate for the state assembly who ended up losing to a Democrat in the general election, but would have been the nation’s first Republican transgender lawmaker. Nevada remains one of the early states in the presidential nominating process, and presidential contenders could be advised to take heed of the way Sandoval has pushed the party.
“There are people in the party who live alternative lifestyles,” said Michael McDonald, the state GOP chairman. “They are gay but they are conservative. They want to keep their money, and they want to help build the country. I wanted [the party] to be inclusive instead of exclusive, and they started to come back to us.”
And as would-be presidential candidates head out West, McDonald said they should be mindful of the new, broader tent GOP in Nevada.
“All Nevadans, whether they be of the gay persuasion or cowboys or from Las Vegas like me, they want to hear how candidates are going to move the country forward,” he said.